Uganda’s innovation ecosystem still a work in progress

October 25, 2015 at 1:52 am  •  Posted in Innovation, Tech by  •  0 Comments

In Summary: It’s becoming a habit for many Ugandans to ignore calls to action on matters of great industry importance. People who don’t participate in any of the established open forums through which development projects and policies are formulated tend to be the loudest when it comes to criticizing the efforts of the willing few.

TODAY I stumbled upon an article from someone I’ve been intending to meet for over a year. Someone whose work I’ve heard about quite a lot over the last few years; enough to make an impression on me even if I’m still yet to meet him. Apart from the work that’s attributed to him by people known to me, I don’t know much about Ian Ortega.

In his latest entry to his blog, he refers to Uganda’s startup scene as “stagnant”, with all potential players too “afraid of failure”. He argues that we should encourage more and more people to [try and] fail, and as such, we’ll increase the number (not percentage) of successes.

“It’s going to begin with telling people that ‘Hey, you can take as many risks as possible, perhaps burn in the process, you have our unconditional support’,” he notes.

Incidentally, that’s the second article I’ve read today about Uganda’s technology scene. On Medium, Daniel Mwesigwa posted a lengthy piece in which he criticized the functioning of “some ICT Association in Uganda”, the 2014 selection of the companies that are beneficiaries of an ICT exports-promotion project called NTF3, currently being implemented by the International Trade Center; and the operation of the government-owned Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) at both Uganda’s Communication Commission (UCC) and the National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U), among other things.

As someone who played a pivotal role in each of the elements above, I find his two-thousand-five-hundred-word article very shallow and arriving at somewhat unreasoned conclusions.

It would be equally narrow for me to respond to Mwesigwa’s article directly, but his case is interesting because he appears to be one of the many Ugandan commentators who, for some reason, prefer to publicly make comments on subjects without enough background information.

In this article, therefore, I’ll attempt to share my opinion about the current innovation ecosystem, and why it may appear as stagnant, and some lessons I’ve learnt in the last 6 years during which I’ve been an active player in the sector.

Years later, success stories few and far-apart!

It’s the unfortunate part of our story so far. “They use startups that hit global news 5 years ago as poster children at every opportunity they get — yet these startups are defunct today,” noted Mwesigwa in his blog, accusing ‘government and privately founded agencies and associations’ of what would be deemed as either massively ignorant or an fraudulent.

2011’s Garage48 event organized by the team that later set up Outbox Hub, in collaboration with MTN Uganda, was the first hackathon hosted in Uganda. 11 potential startups were created, the most prominent of which was MafutaGo, an app that attempted to crowdsource information about fuel prices around major towns and help consumers find the stations with the lowest rates. MafutaGo survived for a while and went on to win a few more awards and competitions.

But none of the 11 innovations are still operational today!

Various other innovation Challenges have since been organized, including the annual Microsoft Imagine Cup, the Orange Community Innovation Awards, Seedstars World challenge, App Circus, Pivot East, Orange Social Venture Prize, the ICT4Agriculture hackthon by Unicef, several other editions of Garage48 hackathon, and more recently the MTN App Challenge. I have been fortunate enough to have covered the greator majority of each of these competitions, interacted with participants, and the case of the Orange Community Innovations Awards (CIA), adjudicated for 3 years.

There have been some successes. Ensibuuko, a team of agricultural solutions innovators that we first spotted at the Orange CIA in 2012 has now grown to impact over 40,000 people in Uganda, according to this link.

The other product of Orange CIA is Brainshare, a social-education app that is connecting people across Uganda, and the world, through education. It is “an online classroom that helps people study while networking, and combines real-time collaboration, note sharing and tutoring across a number of platforms.” In under two years, they’ve been able to enroll numerous Ugandan schools – from Primary schools to Universities – and secure a partnership with Microsoft’s 4Afrika project., winner of Seedstars World Challenge in 2014 is continuing to perform well on the market, currently working on high level partnerships to enable them offer remittance transfer services at much cheaper rates.

Joshua Okello‘s WinSenga – a smartphone-based Ultrasound alternative – was one of the category winners at Microsoft Imagine Cup Global finals. The team has, according to their website, continued to impact midwives across the country, through partnerships with Unicef and Microsoft. They’ve used their prize money wisely.

There are a number of other success stories; all of whom I may not write about in one article. So it’s an unfair generalization to say our innovations never make it anywhere.

The Environment Settings

In April 2014, the Michael Niyitegeka and I attended (on behalf of the ICT Association) a consultative meeting at the Ministry of ICT that had been called to get stakeholder views about the Ministry’s direction for the next five year period. The Ministry had been developing their five-year strategic plan.

May 2013 - Official Launch of the ICT Association with then Minister of ICT Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Chairman Parliamentary ICT Committee Hon. Vincent Bagire, NITA-U ED James Saaka and ICTAU Chairman Simon Kaheru (All Front Row) among others.

May 2013 – Official Launch of the ICT Association with then Minister of ICT Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Chairman Parliamentary ICT Committee Hon. Vincent Bagire, NITA-U ED James Saaka and ICTAU Chairman Simon Kaheru (All Front Row) among others.

Among the questions that came up was; ‘how do we reach the youths that are trying to create innovations in the technology space?”

Officials from the Ministry tasked us, as the Industry Association to reach out to members of the various incubation hubs and other innovation spaces and come up with a framework in which the Ministry could create a channel for communication between the government and the innovators.

The discussion about order in the ICT Sector was one of the primary reasons why the ICT Association was founded, back in 2011. We felt there was absence of both a unified voice for the sector that represented our interests and provided for them to be considered in the national planning processes.

As a 2015 project, NITA-U has been conducting an assessment of existing innovation/incubation hubs in order “to establish how best to support them”. Without systematic support from government, our startups continue to look to the support of the private sector, thereby introducing another dimension: the interests of the private-sector supporters.

In my meetings with officials from the UN and International Trade Center, I explained these challenges way before the project plan for the Netherlands Trust Fund project (NTF3) was created.

The plan was eventually drafted and crucially made to include, as project partners, industry associations, innovation hubs and the industry regulator (on behalf of government), in this case NITA-U.

But with innovators still unable to join umbrella organizations, it’s extremely difficult to implement policies and strategies that take care of their interests. As such, their success rate will continue to be very low.

In Rwanda, the platform is much more centralized, and almost everyone doing interesting work in the Innovation space has the full backing of the government.

Changing Interests

There are advantages that come with winning awards and being in the media for good reasons: your CV gets enhanced and it’s much easier to get a [better] job. Statistics of unemployment in Uganda are so alarming that students are encouraged to, by default, think about being job creators rather than job seekers. It is the lesson I learnt way before I joined University.

As a result, most of our innovators are players in the space, not because it’s their preference, but in the foreseeable future, they feel have no choice. The risk with that is, they quickly reconsider their options once they have the opportunity to choose.

That’s the downside of winning awards and hackathons.

Recognizing the efforts of those trying to make a difference

A few days ago, in response to a @pctechmagazine tweet about an #MTNInnovationAwards Twitter chat, Daniel Mwesigwa suggested that @niyimic had been invited as guest due to his status as a Board Member of the ICTAU. MTN Uganda is organizing the annual MTN Innovation Awards next month and PC Tech had hosted Niyitegeka to share his insights on Uganda’s innovation environment on Twitter.

For some reason, he connected two completely unrelated initiatives and made it a big deal.

As @niyimic explained to him that the #MTNInnovationAwards Twitter chat wasn’t connected to @ICTAUg, Kaheru and I invited him to join the ICTAU and pick interest in its leadership. Of course, he didn’t respond, preferring to write a blog and claim;

“The board of members is well connected to the high end and seems to be using the platform for good intentions. But good intentions don’t pay bills, perhaps that’s why they have become a conduit of personal gain of sorts; be it through endorsements, partnership with foreign development partners, speaking engagements, name it.”

The ten members of the ICTAU Board work on voluntary basis, and in addition to paying the annual membership fees, often use their personal funds to run Association activities.

Mwesigwa’s case is not isolated. A lot of Ugandan commentators base their arguments on hearsay, and are too lazy to verify facts before writing about them!

About the companies that were selected for the NTF3 project, he wrote: “When you see the list of firms that made it to the pilot programme, one thing strikes in the undertone, they are either well connected or have been in the game for long.”

This is in spite the fact that the call for expression of interest was published for over a month and in addition to online media, the same call was published in the New Vision. Out of over 80 companies that expressed interest, independent consultants from Geneva, Switzerland conducted the vetting, physically visiting premises of interested companies and interviewing their staff.

In his article, Mwesigwa also didn’t seem to understand the difference between the National CERT and the Communications (Sectoral) CERT under UCC. But there isn’t enough space in this article to break that down. I interviewed the both Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi (Executive Director, UCC) and James Saaka (Executive Director, NITA-U) and you read details on that here.

Fail Fast, Fail Often?

With the Ugandan team at Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle, WA. August 2014.

With the Ugandan team at Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle, WA. August 2014.

I do not agree with Ian Ortega that we should encourage more innovators to “fail fast, fail often”. I believe there are some factors we can alter to ensure a higher success rate than the current one.

In my case for example, the next time I’m adjudicating, I’ll create an alternative question to “how will you make money”, and this time ask, “how will you get a million users”?

Because as long as you have users, money will eventually come.

The bottomline…

The startup scene isn’t a “mess” as one of the bloggers suggested. It’s a developing ecosystem. Different policies are still being developed, a few partners still considering how much to be involved, hundreds of enthusiastic youths, growing levels of connectivity, and regulators that are more aware about the importance of innovation.

It’s a work in progress, and definitely a reason to be optimistic.


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